Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Shu Ha Ri: the stages of training

On a cold Sunday afternoon last week, I found myself in the woods, my scarf tight around my neck and a wool hat pulled down over my ears, listening to Michael Wojtech talk about tree bark—me and 29 or 30 other people crazy enough to stand around in the woods as if we too were weathering this first blast of winter like the trees. Mr. Wojtech, pointing out a white birch just off the trail, explained how trees breathe through their lenticels (how I understood it) or more properly how those dark, horizontal striations on the surface allow for the exchange of gases between the inside of the tree and the outside air (though I would never describe my own respiration that way). He pointed out shagbark hickories and red maples and hemlocks and quaking aspens, and explained how the trees grew and how the bark functioned. It was really quite an interesting talk, despite the cold. It gave me a much better appreciation of trees but also a sort of fascination with their “aliveness."

I don’t know why this reminded me of the martial concepts of Shu, Ha, and Ri. Perhaps because I had been rereading a marvelous little book that morning, a collection of old essays by Kensho Furuya titled “Kodo: Ancient Ways: Lessons in the Spiritual Life of the Warrior/Martial Artist.”  Furuya sensei talks of these stages in one’s training using the image of an egg. In the first stage, the student “develops in the shell…learning the form and technique.” The teacher does his or her best to pass on the techniques of the style and the student in turn does his or her best to preserve and protect what is being passed on.

In the second stage, the student “breaks out of his shell,” mastering the techniques. In this stage, the student preserves the technique but also adapts the technique to fit his or her own movement and idiosyncrasies. The kata and execution of the techniques are the same but there are also differences. The minute corrections a teacher might make in the first phase of a student’s training don’t matter as much because the student now understands the technique. The student now knows what the techniques are for, how to use them, but in order to make them work, there may be subtle differences from how the teacher executes the same techniques. This does not mean that there may not be a need to correct techniques here and there—there is always the danger that in adapting one’s technique to one’s own movement, the fundamental principles may be inadvertently ignored or subverted in one way or another. For example, as students get stronger or faster, they may find themselves unconsciously relying on strength or speed instead of technique. In some ways, I suppose, the analogy of the egg and the baby chick breaks down here—there may be a need at times to revisit that earlier stage of learning to “check” one’s technique. Perhaps there is, in fact, a constant reminder to “check” one’s technique in the same way that Kosho Uchiyama Roshi reminds us to “Sit silently for ten years, then for ten more years and then for another ten years.”

And yet there is another stage—Ri. In this stage, the student has “left the nest.” The student has transcended the technique—that is, they are not consciously thinking about the form of the technique or applying the techniques; instead, they are relying on an intuitive understanding of the principles to guide their techniques. The principles have been learned and absorbed through ruthless practice of the techniques. This understanding of the principles behind the formal movements is what guides this last stage of formal training. There are no shortcuts. But there are dangers here. You can’t just arrive at this stage because you want to, not without long hours of practice. And yet, as Dogen says of an understanding of Zen, you can’t get there unless there is a desire. 

The other danger for me comes with how we understand the principles of kata. We may know the form of the techniques, but our understanding of the bunkai—how we are meant to apply the techniques—may be, at the very least, lacking or altogether wrong. How can we understand the principles of a martial system—and the principles are, of course, preserved in the kata—if we are simply guessing about the applications of the techniques? If we don’t understand the principles, there is no “Ri.” If we don’t practice the techniques with the right frame of mind, we won’t discover how the techniques are meant to be applied. And if we don’t discover the original bunkai, we won’t find the principles. And once again, no principles, no “Ri.” 

I don't think this really had anything to do with seeing a small bird’s nest on a branch up in a nearby oak tree. What I was really thinking about on that cold walk through the woods was how we can learn to understand the principles that seem to connect things—how trees, in all of their variety, live and breathe and work at survival; how they take in water and fight off insects; how they grow and adapt to different environments. It was all based on an understanding of the principles involved. The more trees you study, I imagine, the more you see these principles manifested. And really, it all seemed so human. 

Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. After all, I'm no authority on trees either--I just enjoy them. Perhaps there is no difference whether one is working with the "original intent" of kata and bunkai or practicing block-punch-kick bunkai derived from a less traditional approach to karate; with the right frame of mind, one might still work through the stages of Shu, Ha, Ri, I suppose. When all is said and done, there may be no real difference between the formal Japanese tea ceremony—Chado or the “Way of tea,” for example—and serving up a burger and fries at McDonald’s. Or is there?

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